Are Gherkin Scenarios with Multiple When-Then Pairs Okay?

Don’t know about Behavior-Driven Development or Gherkin? Start here!

Writing Gherkin is easy, but writing good Gherkin is hard. My post BDD 101: Writing Good Gherkin covers many aspects of good behavior specification, including titles, phrasing, and data. One of the major points I make anytime I discuss good Gherkin is what I call the “Cardinal Rule of BDD.”

The Cardinal Rule of BDDOne Scenario, One Behavior!

A behavior scenario specification should focus on one individual behavior. This is the essence of the BDD mindset – a product’s features can be specified in terms of its behaviors, and the specs should be written as examples of those behaviors in action. Identifying individual behaviors brings clarity to design, development, and testing. Combining behaviors into a single scenario causes ambiguity, miscommunication, and test gaps. Test failure triage also becomes more difficult and time consuming because the root causes for failures are less clear – the culprit could be one of multiple behaviors. There is also a high risk of duplication when scenarios repeat the same sequence of steps instead of isolating behaviors.

One of the dead giveaways to violations of the Cardinal Rule of BDD is when a Gherkin scenario has multiple When-Then pairs, like this:

Feature: Google Searching

  Scenario: Google Image search shows pictures
    Given the user opens a web browser
    And the user navigates to "https://www.google.com/"
    When the user enters "panda" into the search bar
    Then links related to "panda" are shown on the results page
    When the user clicks on the "Images" link at the top of the results page
    Then images related to "panda" are shown on the results page

A When-Then pair denotes a unique behavior. In this example, the behaviors of performing a search and changing the search to images could and should clearly be separated into two scenarios, like this:

Feature: Google Searching

  Scenario: Search from the search bar
    Given a web browser is at the Google home page
    When the user enters "panda" into the search bar
    Then links related to "panda" are shown on the results page

  Scenario: Image search
    Given Google search results for "panda" are shown
    When the user clicks on the "Images" link at the top of the results page
    Then images related to "panda" are shown on the results page

Despite being so central to BDD philosophy, the Cardinal Rule is the one thing people always try to sidestep. Nobody ever doubts the usefulness of step parameters or the need for good grammar, but people frequently show me scenarios with multiple When-Then pairs and basically ask for an exception from the rule. My gut reaction is always, “NO! Rules don’t change.”

However…

I must first admit that the Cardinal Rule of BDD is “opinionated” – it is the way that I have found BDD to work best for collaboration and automation. Adherence forces people to adopt a behavior-driven mindset, and strictness keeps feature and test quality high. Other experts are more permissive of multiple When-Then pairs, though. Most examples I could find from leading sources such as The Cucumber Book exhibit strict Given-When-Then order for Gherkin scenarios, but other sources such as the online JBehave documentation show scenarios with multiple When-Then pairs boldly on the front page.

I must also begrudgingly admit that there are times when it is simply more convenient for a single scenario to have multiple behaviors (and thus multiple When-Then pairs). This is by no means a best practice but rather a pragmatic alternative for specification dilemmas. (See Purist vs. Pragmatist.) Below are situations in which multiple When-Then pairs may be acceptable.

Lengthy End-to-End Scenarios

End-to-end tests verify execution paths through a live system with all of its parts. Web UI tests frequently fall into this category: Selenium WebDriver interacts with a page in a browser, which then triggers calls to a backend service layer or database. Despite the name, end-to-end tests may still focus on one individual behavior. The example scenarios above, though short, technically count as end-to-end tests.

However, many people use the term “end-to-end” to refer to tests that cover sequences of behaviors. Such a scenario could violate the Cardinal Rule of BDD if it is not handled carefully. My article BDD 101: Unit, Integration, and End-to-End Tests gives strategies for handling lengthy end-to-end scenarios. One strategy is to simply turn a blind eye to multiple When-Then pairs. Ideally, each behavior would already have its own individual scenario, but then a new scenario would explicitly combine the behaviors together to get that full, end-to-end path. The new scenario would be easy to write because the steps could be reused. This isn’t the only strategy, so please be sure to consider the others before writing the tests.

Audits

Software system audits frequently require lengthy end-to-end scenarios. They are quite common in highly-regulated domains. For example, a bank may need to prove that a loan is prepared correctly or that a transaction puts money into the right accounts. Auditors typically require tests to run through entire system paths (e.g., multiple behaviors) using the same records, such as one loan application or one payment. Auditees must not only provide test results for past runs but must also repeat tests on demand. Separating each individual behavior into its own scenario makes each test independent, so during test execution, there will be no guaranteed order and no shared test data, and auditors would not have the end-to-end verification that they require. The simplest way to give the auditors what they need is to write one lengthy scenario with multiple When-Then pairs.

Service Calls

Service call testing is another case for which multiple When-Then pairs may be pragmatically justified. REST, SOAP, and WSDL are examples of service call types. Service layer development is more engineering-centric than business-centric, but many teams nevertheless choose to test service calls with Gherkin-based frameworks like Cucumber. Due to the programmatic nature of services, Gherkin scenarios for service calls tend to be quite imperative: specify a request, make the call, and verify parts of the response. This isn’t so bad for independent service calls, but it becomes a problematic when one request needs another call’s response.

One solution is the classic “pure” scenario split: put any necessary setup, including initial requests to get required response parts, into custom Given steps. This abides by the Cardinal Rule and avoids duplicate When-Then pairs. But, it introduces an unsavory form of code duplication. Many service calls end up being written twice: once as a Gherkin scenario for testing, and once in the underlying automation code to be called by Given steps. This violates the DRY principle.

The alternative “pragmatic” solution is to write scenarios that specify multiple service calls in the Gherkin steps. The Karate project advocates this approach, as shown in their “Hello World” example:

Take Caution!

There may be other cases when When-Then repetition is useful. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments below. My examples are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Another aspect to consider is that allowing multiple When-Then pairs per scenario indicates that a team sees more value in BDD’s test framework than in its collaborative spec process. (Refer to ‑‑BDD; Automation without Collaboration and BDD‑‑; Collaboration without Automation.)

Ultimately, you must decide what practices are best for your project. The main reason I uphold the Cardinal Rule of BDD so strongly is that it makes for good specs and good tests. I’ve seen engineers write extremely long, intensive test procedures (and I mean, dozens of duplicate behaviors per test) that are alright for manual testing but do not transition well into automation because they are too fragile and they don’t yield useful information upon failure. The Cardinal Rule is a way to break out of the procedure-driven mindset, and banning multiple When-Then pairs per Gherkin scenario is an effective rule for enforcing it.

3 comments

  1. Hello Andy!

    While idealistic, the cardinal rule does not really hold out for complex scenarios and client expectations. The gherkin will have to break somewhere in favor of code reuse. “Purist” gherkin, from experience, rarely translates into reusable code with the latter being more valued by business stakeholders. Building new features from existing steps should be an advantage of gherkin and this will be difficult to achieve if the steps are bound to one behavior. I prefer to write gherkin in such a way that each step is an independent unit and can be reused anytime without dependency. Hence, multiple When’s and Then’s can be called by any scenario that needs them. As the library of steps build up, it becomes easier to build new features/scenarios down the line because you have many pieces now – like Legos.

    By no means, I claim this to be the best approach, but I can attest for the code efficiency/reusability and time saved with the “Lego Model” when time is usually not in our luxury. Given that gherkin is step-based, steps are methods, and methods by nature are independent units, it can be a noteworthy point of view. 🙂

    Thank you for this article. I look forward to reading more.

    Like

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